LAS VEGAS — Undecided voters who are about to settle the nation's most closely watched U.S. Senate race are facing a dilemma: They don't care for either Harry Reid or Sharron Angle.
"Neither one is likable, and both say stupid stuff," said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
That makes it hard to predict the outcome of the race between Democrat Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Republican Angle, a tea party favorite, in a contest whose results will reverberate far beyond this desert-and-neon-filled state.
Reid, 70, one of the nation's most powerful Democrats, is struggling to win a fifth term. His defeat not only would be seen as a message from voters that they're unhappy with party leaders, but also would shake up the Senate's leadership even if Democrats retain a majority there.
Angle, 61, is positioned to be the tea party's biggest giant-killer, an achievement that would vault her, and the nascent grass-roots movement, into even greater national prominence.
Adding to the unpredictability is an angry, frustrated band of voters, victims in a boom state gone bust. Nevada's unemployment rate hit 14.4 percent in August, by far the nation's highest, and few look to either Reid or Angle for comfort.
"Angle's got some extreme ideas, but Reid has messed up my health plan," said Cecil Seaney, a retired accountant and political independent in Mesquite, a small town 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Even those who've made a choice have qualms.
"I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Harry Reid. I felt he hasn't been a strong majority leader," said Dave Schwartz, a Las Vegas community activist.
Albert DiPentino, a retired Mesquite real estate appraiser, leans toward Angle, but added, "I have some questions about her. I see these commercials where she seems to be against everything."
Reid, the son of a Searchlight, Nev., hard rock miner, has been banking on his long history of delivering money and clout to woo voters. Last Wednesday, for instance, he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared in Las Vegas to announce federal help for a high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and Southern California, and on Thursday, they helped dedicate the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge.
However, Reid's support has been stuck between 42 and 47 percent in most polls.
One reason: The state's population has swelled by 600,000 over the last decade, to 2.6 million, and Reid's run only one other time during that span.
"I don't know what he's done, but I can tell you what he hasn't done recently," said Mark Shavitz, a retired heating contractor who moved to Las Vegas from Chicago three years ago.
Reid's other ace is supposed to be how he's joined with President Barack Obama in the last 21 months to tackle some of America's most vexing problems, notably its health care and financial regulatory systems. Obama carried Nevada in 2008 by 12.5 percentage points.
However, even Reid's defenders concede that Democrats have done a lousy job of explaining their biggest challenge: fixing an economy that won't heal quickly.
"We're the patient ones with the economy, and that's turned into our problem," said Chris Miller, a Las Vegas salesman.
Patience, though, is what Democrats keep preaching.
"Until three years ago, most people here believed if we weren't in the land of milk and honey, gambling would take us there," said Rory Reid, Harry Reid's son, the chairman of the Clark County Commissioners and Nevada's Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
However, with today's sour economy, he argued, Nevada has to reinvent its economy. "Nevada doesn't sell enough," he said.
Patience is proving not to be a political virtue. Beneath the Vegas neon, which seems to touch the sky, panhandlers line the pedestrian bridges that connect the massive hotels. Tourists stop to watch the nightly dancing fountains at the posh Bellagio, but look up Las Vegas Boulevard to see a sea of dark hotel rooms.
So much seems out of control, voters say, and Harry Reid has had his chance.
"Harry Reid didn't give me any stimulus," said Mark Sanders, a casino furniture-installation project manager who's been out of work since June.
While Reid is a convenient scapegoat — the latest Mason-Dixon survey Oct. 11-12 found that 52 percent viewed him unfavorably — Angle hasn't surged ahead.
She won a sometimes-bitter Republican primary in June, triumphing as the tea party favorite. However, she hurt herself with many voters thanks to a series of gaffes and missteps.
Angle called in May for phasing out Social Security, then later said she never planned to end it. She labeled the BP oil spill victim-compensation fund a "slush fund," and earlier this month she told a Mesquite audience that a "foreign system of law" friendly to terrorists is taking hold in certain U.S. communities.
Angle's angles may be too much for some voters who doubt Reid's effectiveness.
"If there was somebody good I'd vote against him," said Larry Wagman of Las Vegas, a retired corrugated box-company manager, "but Sharron Angle scares the pants off me."
Still, maybe in these dismal times, said an undecided David Bennett, a Mesquite title company worker, it's time to try something new.
"I know Reid has done a lot for the state over the years, but I'm a fiscal conservative," he said.
What's likely to determine who gets the roughly 18 to 20 percent of undecided voters is what their gut feelings tell them about how the economy could improve.
For instance, some undecideds mention immigration as having an impact on their votes. It's a huge issue in this state, where an estimated 180,000 unauthorized immigrants live, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Reid made a last-minute push last month to enact the DREAM Act, which would provide a conditional path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.
Angle, who's running ads that label Reid "the best friend an illegal alien ever had," backs the new Arizona law that allows law enforcement officials to ask suspects about their immigration status.
Peter Gariano, the Henderson city marshal, is weighing the two sides.
"If Reid was our guy, we shouldn't have so many people coming through our borders, and that includes potential terrorists," he said. However, Gariano is no fan of the Arizona approach.
"We can't be harassing people. You have to treat everyone with respect,' he said.
His choice? He'll know on Nov. 2.
"It will be what I feel," he said.
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